Matsuo Basho, “Even in Kyoto”

Even in Kyoto (from Modern American Poetry)
Matsuo Basho (tr. Robert Hass)

Even in Kyoto —
hearing the cuckoo’s cry —
I long for Kyoto.


“Even in Kyoto… I long for Kyoto” brings to mind the never-ending invocation of real America. Everyone is searching for it, apparently, from journalists knee-deep in coal mining country to union organizers among city transit employees. I’m mocking this notion of “real America,” but we do use it quite seriously, quite often. Sometimes, it serves as a crude club with which we beat opposing partisans. A much better use is when it introduces skepticism about conventional wisdom, trying to see through sloppy data or select anecdotes.

Still, “real America” only superficially resembles Basho’s cry. “Real America,” at its best, tries to see beyond partisanship to justify, um, partisanship. “Even in Kyoto — hearing the cuckoo’s cry — I long for Kyoto” concerns something far deeper. How do we find that concern, though? The haiku gives us so little to work with that it invites all sorts of speculation. It’s alright to make mistakes in interpretation – there is no such thing as an absolutely “correct” interpretation – and enjoying the work of an author does not require rigorous amounts of historical detail. This poem, however, is ripe for quickly going off the rails.

The safest way to proceed is by putting ourselves in the speaker’s place. He’s in a large, populated city which either bustles with activity or sleeps. Whether he’s watching shoppers crowd a marketplace or the moon illuminate rooftops, the cuckoo cries, breaking his experience. “Hearing the cuckoo’s cry” brings him into another present; Kyoto subsides, becoming merely a place.

Why is the cuckoo so significant? The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, tells us that the cuckoo could signal the beginning of summer, or that its call might be that of the “spirits of the dead.” The latter fits the poem, but radicalizes what’s happening. Before, it was possible to say that the cuckoo naturally interrupted an urban reverie. Now, one has to identify nature with death, as Basho hears the cuckoo cry and realizes the life of the city is only cyclical – people in motion, people at rest – to a point. Everyone in the city will permanently pass away. This truth is natural inasmuch there is an order to the world beyond our conventions and creations.

He ends the poem with a short cry of his own: “I long for Kyoto.” All things will pass away, but what of what we have made? What of our whole investment? His desire is not for permanence or the realization of an ideal. What is most significant is that the desire for Kyoto itself is justified. Life not only exists, but also gains a certain grandeur in the face of death. What’s funny is that death does not steal away that grandeur.

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